FINDING MANA IN French Polynesia
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|May/June 2021
Five archipelagos, 118 islands, countless patches of ocean heaven... With our trip planner, we help you get your head around exploring the pristine Pacific
Celeste Brash

I jumped off our small skiff into the sapphire ocean outside of the pass into Ahe Atoll. Immediately, through my mask, I spotted a school of jacks, their bodies glistening silver and gold in the surface-filtered light, their electric-blue edges making them look more of sea than in it.

In a moment, the jacks were far behind. The current propelled me and my three fellow snorkellers towards the lagoon so fast it felt like a carnival ride. The water was glass-clear, so I could see straight to the bottom – at least 20m down – where two whitetip reef sharks cruised over canyons of coral reef that spread like octopus tentacles towards the navy depths of the atoll’s edge. We were now in the pass, with coral cliffs rearing on either side of the 90m-wide waterway. Floating on the surface, it was like looking into a deep river valley, except instead of trees, there was coral and instead of birds, there were fish.

A large Napoleon wrasse nibbled on coral while one of my snorkeller friends dived down for a closer look. I raised my head above water to see the two sides of the pass, both flat land masses covered in coconut palms and bleached-white coral beaches that sloped down steeply to meet the reef. Behind me was some 8,000km of empty ocean and in front was the safety of the lagoon. I felt small. I focused on the Waterworld beneath me again, where fish of every colour swam below and sharks slunk slowly, uninterested in the humans hovering above them.

Five minutes later, after spotting a sea turtle, several barracuda and countless green parrotfish, we found ourselves inside the lagoon where the blues of the shallower water lightened to a glowing turquoise. The ride had been too fast. I wished I could do it all over again.

Just as I drifted by the left-hand beach of the inner pass, still feeling a tinge of disappointment, a manta ray glided towards me as if the strong current didn’t exist. Its graceful triangular wings must have been 5m wide and, right by its side, its baby, a perfect replica in miniature. I was face to face with two of the most spectacular creatures I’d ever seen. I kept my body motionless and let the current take me closer to the mother and child. Eventually they spotted me, slowly turned right, then sped up in unison, flying towards the middle of the lagoon. It felt like they were my welcome committee.

Mana, the sacred force that brings everything together in the islands, was in those manta rays, in the waters around me, in the flower-scented air above. I could feel it. In this moment of awe, I understood. Everything about my passage through the pass, the water and its denizens was perfect.

Blue lagoon circuit

Island-hop between the bluest lagoons and best beaches in the country

Duration: 14-21 days

Best for: Watersports, beaches, marine life, relaxing

Route: Moorea, Tetiaroa, Bora Bora, Fakarava, Rangiroa, Ahe, Raivavae, Gambier

Why do it: To enjoy warm, bright waters – both remote and less so – and let the ocean’s mana soothe your soul.

French Polynesia is home to some of the clearest waters on earth, thanks to its isolated location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of pristine lagoons are delineated by fringing coral reefs, creating natural swimming pools of the most intense blue imaginable.

Water babies should start in the Society Islands. Here, the jumbled geometry of Moorea’s mountainous interior rises from a halo of sky-blue seas. This lagoon holds something for everyone, from the wide white sands and calm swimming at Temae Beach (a local family favourite) to kite-surfing and surfing off the west coast, around Haapiti. Don’t miss a boat trip to Stingray World, a sandy mount off the north coast where you can swim with rays and sharks. You can also rent kayaks or SUPs here, to spend hours exploring – pack a picnic and paddle over to Coco Beach on Motu Tiahura, a near-empty islet on the fringing reef.

North of Moorea, Tetiaroa’s powdery beaches and crystalline lagoon were once reserved for Tahitian royalty. Marlon Brando bought the atoll with his Polynesian co-star (and third wife) Tarita after filming the 1962 film, Mutiny on the

Bounty; it is now home to luxury resort, The Brando, as well as being a sanctuary for nesting birds.

Further west, honeymooners’ haven Bora Bora has what many consider to be the region’s most beautiful lagoon. The range of blues here is simply dazzling, while the underwater landscape ranges from white sand to vibrant coral gardens. Boat tours are available but you could spend days just kicking around with a mask and snorkel. Biking around the 32km-long ring road, through tiny villages, is the best way to experience a less touristy side of the island.

For more lagoons, head east to French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Islands, where almost 80 coral atolls each embrace their own azure waters. Fakarava stands out – its remarkable array of underwater life has garnered UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Activities available here include scuba diving, snorkelling and fishing.

Rangiroa is the largest atoll of the Tuamotus. Rent a bike and explore the two main villages, take a full-day lagoon tour to visit the dreamy Pink Sand Beach and Blue Lagoon (a lagoon within the lagoon), and hit Vin de Tahiti to taste unique wines made from grapes grown in coral soil.

Ahe is a lesser-known Tuamotu atoll, worth visiting to snorkel its marine-life-filled pass and see its old-growth forests, rich in rare birds. Pension Raita, located on its own palm-covered islet, offers a local-style experience, with ukulele music at sunset and fish barbecues on the weekends.

Further south lie the Austral Islands. Here you’ll find idyllic Raivavae, home to a blue lagoon to rival Bora Bora’s. The atoll is a prime choice for getting away from the modern world: it has no resorts and no organised activities, although all the homestays can help you find hiking guides to lead you up the lone mountain, arrange transportation to isolated white-sand islets or just lend you a bike so you can explore and make friends.

Remotest of all is the Gambier Archipelago. This cluster of small, high islands is encircled in a common lagoon where the most colourful Tahitian pearls in the country are produced. Mangareva is the biggest island; Rikitea its main town. Visit the eerie Catholic cathedral and chapels, built with coral blocks via forced labour by Pere Honoré Laval in the 19th century. Also, check out the pearl oyster carving school at the college St Raphael – it’s a great chance to meet the young people of the island and see their innovative pieces made from local oyster shells.

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